Tips for finding insights and ideas on a tight budget.

At some point, all organizations are forced to address challenges with limited resources. Whether you are in the midst of budget woes, are experiencing growing pains, or face other limitations, here are some tips for gathering insights and advice on a budget.

Mine work you already own

Your organization has likely paid for consulting work, creative briefs, analysis, facilitation, marketing plans, or other work from outside expert firms. Perhaps similar work has been developed by internal teams. In either case, revisiting those projects can be a valuable source of learning and inspiration.

Look for ideas. Dust off those old documents and files and take a look. You may find good ideas that were never implemented or that have been forgotten once an immediate need was addressed. Review the rationale for why changes have been made in the past, and challenge yourself to think about what can and should be done differently now.

Think about process. Studying how prior challenges have been analyzed and addressed can be very instructive, providing insights that you can use to solve current challenges.

  • What kinds of questions were used to frame challenges?

  • What factors contributed most toward building (or hindering) effective teamwork?

  • If a skilled facilitator worked with your team, what techniques seemed most helpful?

  • What would have made the process work better for stakeholders?

Study what failed. Failure is a path toward success because it gives us the opportunity to learn. If your organization already evaluates efforts and debriefs after projects: great! Read post-project reports, review your notes, or discuss the challenges you faced with team members or the project manager. We often see and understand things differently once time has passed: new insights may surprise you.

If you aren't in the habit of evaluating why prior efforts weren't as successful as planned, start now. If you don't have organizational support for a formal process, do it informally and contribute your insights later.

One of the best ways to learn is to speak with the people involved in recent projects. Here are a few examples of the types of questions you may want to explore:

  • When challenges arose, were the underlying causes mostly internal or mostly external?

  • How did the culture of your organization affect success?

  • What are the most common barriers to change in your organization?

  • What did you know at the end of the effort that you wish you knew from the start?

Pay attention to what others think and do

A great deal of expertise is available for free via the internet in the form of white papers, articles, blogs, presentations, and reading lists. When you find useful resources, take advantage of RSS feeds or newsletter subscriptions. Read that book you've been putting off. Don't forget that your local public library or organization library can be an inexpensive resource.

Schedule a fixed time each week to research and read. If you can set aside time daily, even better. Even 10 or 15 minutes can yield inspiration, especially if you focus on gathering information about a narrow and well-defined topic.

Take notes. Writing down key ideas or quotes will help you remember the concepts. To cement your learning, draw sketches or doodles as you read. They don't have to be pretty, just visual.

Track and share what's useful. Use a service that enables you to create and share bookmarks. 

Build and engage a peer network

Use online communities to find and interact with people facing similar challenges. LinkedIn, Twitter, Slack, Medium, FaceBook and other social sites can help you see who and what your peers and competitors find interesting. Meet people working on similar problems and engage them in conversations. Join interest groups and follow the discussions of any professional associations to which you belong.

Attend free (or inexpensive) local events sponsored by professional groups, local colleges, or business groups. Meetup can be a good resource.

Using any one of these strategies is a good step toward gaining insights you can use to solve your current (or next) challenge. Using all three is even better!